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PREACHED IN ST. PAUL'S CTIURCn, CENTREVILLE, QUEEN ANNE
COUNTY, MARYLAND, THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE
EPIPHANY, FEBRUARY 2, A. D 1862.
REV. EDWARD J. STEARNS, A. M
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PREACHED IN ST. PAUL'S CHURCH, CENTREVILLE, QUEEN ANNE
COUNTY, MARYLAND, THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE
EPIPHANY, FEBRUARY 2, A. D. 1862.
REV. EDWARD J. STEARNS, A. M,
RE C TOR.
PUBLISHED BY REQUEST.
JAMES S. WATERS,
The poioers that be are ordained of God.
What say you ? it may be said ; is every ruler then elected by God ?
This I do not say, he answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual
rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and
some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be earned
on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that ;
this, I say, is the work of God's wisdom. Hence he does not say,/or there is
no ruler but of God; but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, there is no
power but of God. And, the poivers that be are ordained of God. Thus
when a certain wise man saith," It is by the Lord that a man is matched with
a woman, he means this, God made marriage, and not that it is he that joineth
together every man that cometh to be with a woman. For we see many that
come to be with one another for evil, and not by the law of marriage, and
this we should not ascribe luito God.
St. Chrysostom, Homil. on Epis. to Romans, Oxford T)-ansl.
Proverbt six. 14, Sept. Transl.
Eomans siii. 1, 2. — Let every soul be subject unto the higher
POWERS, For there is no power but of god: the powers that be
ARE ordained OF GOD. WHOSOEVER THEREFORE RESISTETH THE POWER,
RESISTETH THE ORDINANCE OF GoD.
Christianity has to do primarily with our relation to God,
and secondarily, with our relations to one another and to
society. The latter grow out of the former and are intimate-
ly connected with it. Hence the words of my text, which
would otherwise he out of place in an Apostolical Epistle ;
and hence the Church's adoption of them in her systematic
teaching. They come in course to-day. They do not come
every year ; it is two years since they came last, and it will
be three years hefore they will come again. There is reason
therefore why we should give them ''the more earnest
heed," lest hy any means "we should let them slip." Let
us endeavor therefore to consider them soherly and dis-
passionately, looking to the Father of lights to ''lighten
our darkness," and praying the Spirit of truth to lead us
into all truth, that following in the steps of our Blessed
Master we may "render unto Ccesar the things that are
Cesar's," no less than "unto God the things that are God's."
I begin with an explanation of terms. The word "power,"
which, by the way, had better have been authority, (for
that is what it means,) is here used, you will observe,
four times; twice in the singular, and twice in the plural.
There is a reason for this difference of number. "Every
soul," that is, every individual citizen or subject, is required
to be in subjection to the "higher powers," not, power,
because there always are, in fact, more powers than one
that have authority over him. Of course, in the "liigher
powers," that is, the powers that are higher than himself,
is included the highest or supreme power. So, too, it is
the existing ''powers" that are ordained of God; not, the
existing power. But when we come to the next sentence,
it is, "power," not, powers: "Whosoever, therefore, re-
sisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God;" because
the higher powers are as really of His ordaining as the
highest, and any one of them as really as each and every
other.— All the powers, then, in the State are included in
the phrase "higher powers."
The next question is. What are we to understand by "the
powers that he?" Ordinarily, there is no difficulty in
determining this point, because, ordinarily, there are no
competing powers. But the Apostle's direction applies to
extraordinary cases as well as to ordinary : hence the
difficulty. As a means toward arriving at a satisfactory
conclusion, let us enquire first in what sense "the powers
that be" are "ordained of God."
That they are not ordained by Him now in the same
sense that they were under the Jewish theocracy, that is to
say, by a direct and immediate appointment of the indivi-
dual rulers, is matter of fact. Neither are they ordained
by Him in the sense of a direct and immediate determining
of the number of authorities, their several natures and func-
tions. The State differs in this respect from the Church.
"God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondari-
ly prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts
of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues,"
(1 Cor. xii. 28,) some of them permanent, some of them
temporary, but all of them tlie direct appointment of God.
This is the Constitution, the "organic law," of the Church,
unalterable except by Him who ordained it. Hence the
Church refuses to recognize as (ecclesiastically) legitimate
those communities that have thrown it ofl\ But in the
State it is not so. It was not so in the Apostle's day. The
powers that were^ at the time he wrote, were the Eoman
powers, appointed theoretically by the people or the senate,
practically by the Emperor, himself self-appointed. It
never was so, except under tlie theocracy. From the
earliest times, there have been different forms of civil
government, kingdoms, empires, republics, democratic
commonwealths, each recognized by every other as a valid,,
if not desirable, constitution of the State, a legitimate
"The powers that be," then, not being "ordained of
God" in the sense of a direct and immediate designation of
the offices to be filled and the persons to fill them, in what
sense are they ordained by Him? There is but one other
conceivable sense, namely, that civil government is an ap-
pointment of God; that is to say, that it is His appointment
that there shall be governments, and that, as there cannot
be governments without governors, it is His appointment
that there shall be governors also. This is undoubtedly
the Apostle's meaning in the assertion we are considering,
and it lets us into the meaning of the whole passage.
The right of some to govern — the right, I mean, for the
time being — implies the duty of others to be governed, or,
as the Apostle expresses it, to be in subjection: "Let every
soul be subject to the higher powers;" the right and the
duty are correlative and coextensive. But more of this anon.
To recur to the question, Who are "the powers that be?"
As I have before remarked, there can be no difficulty in
answering this question, where there are no competing pow-
ers. But where there are competing powers, which are
"the powers that be?" There are two cases of this problem,
depending on whether the competition be an active, or a
passive one. If it be a, passive one, that is to say, if powers
claiming to "be," are not in possession, and content them-
selves with merely protesting against the title of those that
are in possession, then plainly, these latter are "the powers
that be;" otherwise, there would be really no power for the
individual to be subject to, and, consequently, he would be
subject to none, and so God's ordinance of civil government
would be defeated of all practical efiect.
This is not merely a supposed case ; it is the actual case
of the French people at this moment, save that with them
there are two competing powers, each refusing to recognize
the pretensions of the other, and both protesting passively
against the title of the powers in actual possession. Surely,
there can be no doubt to which of these powers every indi-
vidual inhabitant of France is to "be subject;" if he is not
subject to the powers in actual possession, plainly he can be
subject to none.
But suj)pose the case of an active competition, that is to
say, of a claim set up, and of an army in the field to assert
it, which then are the powers that be? In other words, to
which of the contending powers is the individual to be sub-
ject? Manifestly, as before, to those in actual possession;
and for the same reason, namely, that if he is not subject to
them he can be subject to none, and so God's ordinance of
civil government is practically annulled.
These are the only supposable cases, and they admit, as we
have seen, of but one answer. There can be no difficulty,
then, in determining in any given instance which are "the
powers that be?" The simple test is, actual possession of the
machinery of government ; for, without the machinery, gov-
ernment cannot act upon the individual, and the individual,
therefore, cannot "be subject" to it.
I think you will, by this time, begin to suspect that the
word "subject," in the Apostle's use of it, has not so wide
a signification as is sometimes attributed to it ; and you will
be right in your suspicion. Being "subject to the higher
powers" does not involve doing whatever they may command;
for they may command you to "pervert judgment and
justice," and then, if you do it, "He that is higher than the
highest regardeth ; and there be higher than they." (Eccl. v.
8.) Doing is action, and tliere is a limit to active obedience
to the "higher powers;" unlimited active obedience is to be
yielded to God only.
If now I should say that unlimited passive obedience is
due to "the powers that be," you would probably demur
to it, because you would misapprehend my meaning. The
phrase "passive obedience" is a theological one, and is as
generally misunderstood by laymen as the legal phrase
"benefit of clergy."* Passive obedience does not mean doing
whatever is commanded; that is active obedience, for doing
is action. Passive obedience is simply non-resistance. The
Quaker exemplifies it, when, refusing to do military duty,
or even to pay the fine for non-performance of it, he suffers
his goods to be distrained and sold at a heavy sacrifice to
satisfy the law. The Confessor exemplifies it, when, refusing
to betray the secrets of the confessional on the witness stand,
he submits to whatever penalty the Court may inflict upon
him. Whether their scruples are well grounded is apart
from my purpose: I do not cite them for their scruples, but
for their patient taking of the consequences.
After this, a definition of passive obedience is, perhaps,
hardly needed. Still, it may not be altogether superfluous
to give one.
"Passive obedience" is unresisting submission to wrong,
real or supposed, at the hands of authority. Now such sub-
mission is the duty of the individual, as such, when there is
no legal and peaceable way of resistance. I say, of the
individual, as such: I am not speaking of him now as a con-
stituent member of the State ; I shall come to that by and
by. I repeat, passive obedience is the duty of the indivi-
dual, as such, when there is no legal and peaceable way of
resistance. This is the plain teaching of Christianity. "Put
them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to
obey magistrates." "They that take the sword," that is, as
the connection shows, they that in their private and indivi-
dual capacity take the sword against the civil magistrate,
"shall perish with the sword." "Submit yourselves to
every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake." It is the
teaching of reason also ; for if every man is to be judge in
his own case, there can be no such thing as a civil commu-
* I had hardly written the above, when I met, in the daily papers, with the
following confirmation of it, in the Report of a Committee of Congress on the
examination of Lieut. Col. Maynadier in regard to his execution of Mr. Secretary
Floyd's order for the distribution of arms : "He says that 'his duty was obedience,
not questioning.' This, as a general rule, is correct; but in the case of palpable
treason on the part of a high ofiScer, passive obedience in the inferior ceases to be a
dutv and becomes a crime." The italics are mine.
nity; and if every man is not to "be judge in his own case, the
individual, human nature being what it is, must sometimes
suffer wrong at the hands of society, and if he suffer must
Call not such submission slavish and degrading ! Is dig-
nity to be found only in resistance? Is there no dignity in
suffering? Shades of the "noble army of martyrs" and
confessors, of all that have ever suffered joyfully for the
right and the true, forbid it ! Infidelity calls submission
degrading. Infidelity has no martyrs. The Church teaches
submission. The martyrs of the Church are a vast multi-
tude whom no man can number, gathered out of every kin-
dred and tongue and people. "^ These are they which came
out of great tribulation." These " had trial of cruel mock-
ings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprison-
ment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were
tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about
in sheepskins and goatskins ; being destitute, afflicted,
tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy,) they
wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and
caves of the earth." (Heb. xi. 36 — 38.)
Chief of the noble band, foremost among those who thus
" climbed the dizzy steep of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain,"
stands the great Apostle the meaning of whose words we
are seeking to ascertain. Let his life be their best expounder.
A living martyrdom was his, such as no other, probably,
ever went through, save Him who was more than man.
Listen to the solemn music of his words: "Five times
received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with
rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night
and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in
perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own
countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city,
in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils
among false brethren ; in Aveariness and painfiilness, in
watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in
cold and nakedness." (2 Cor. xi. 24—27.)
Such is the record. Would you have had it otherwise?
Would you the Apostle had met taunt with taunt, and
blow with blow? Would his memory then have been
handed down along the ages with the halo that encircles it
now ? Ah ! brethren^ there is a power in passive endurance
that the world little dreams of.
"Nobly borne is nobly done."
Still, martyrdom is not to be courted : on the contrary, it
is to be avoided in every possible way consistent with duty.
" When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another,"
was our Lord's direction to his disciples, and it applies to us
in its spirit, if not in the letter. If you cannot flee, or if
duty to others will not permit you to flee, remain and take
the consequences. If they attempt to deprive you of your
rights as citizens, stand only the more firmly upon them.
Assert them in every possible legal way. It is a duty you
owe not merely to yourselves, but to society and to posterity.
Asserting them is not "resisting the ordinance of God."
The Apostle's conduct is the best commentary on his words.
On the occasion of his preaching the gospel at Iconium
along with Barnabas, there being " an assault made both of
the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use
them despitefully, and to stone them, they were ware of it,
and fled unto Lystra and Derbe," and " there they preached
the gospel." (Acts xiv. 5, 6, 7.) On another occasion,
when the Apostle had been seized and brought before the
'' higher powers, " and therefore could not flee, he claimed
his privilege of citizenship. "As they bound him with
thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it
lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncon-
demned ? " What was the consequence ? Why, that when
the chief captain, who was at first doubtful, became satisfied
of the fact, and that at the bare word of the Apostle,
" straightway they departed from him which should have
examined him : and the chief captain also was afraid, after
he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound
him." (Acts xxii. 25, 29.) Verily there were some prac-
tical rights under that " despotic " government which we
are told St. Paul commanded the Roman converts to he sub-
ject to. On another occasion, the Apostle went still further.
His "companion in travel" and ''fellow-laborer," Silas,
and himself, had been " beaten with many stripes" by com-
mand of the magistrates of Philippi, and delivered to the
jailor with the charge to "keep them safely: who, having
received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison,
and made their feet fast in the stocks." At midnight, a
great earthquake opened the prison doors, and loosed the
prisoners' bands : but they disdained to leave the prison in
any underhand manner. "And when it was day, the ma-
gistrates sent the sergeants, saying, Let those men go. And
the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul : The ma-
gistrates have sent to let you go : now therefore depart, and
go in peace. But Paul said unto them. They have beaten
us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us
into prison ; and now do they thrust us out privily ? nay
verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. And
the sergeants told these words unto the magistrates : and
they feared, when they heargl that they were Romans. And
they came and besought them, and brought them out, and
desired them to depart out of the city. And they went out
of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia : and when
they had seen the brethren," — not before, — "when they
had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed."
(Acts xvi. 22—40.)
Such is the Apostle's example, and it is a safe one to fol-
low. "All these things happened unto them for ensamples :
and they are written for our admonition." (1 Cor. x. 11.)
" Brethren," says the same Apostle, " be followers together
of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an
ensample." (Phil. iii. 17.) The Apostle's example, then,
is intended to hcfolloived. In like circumstances, we are to
do as he did. That is the lesson here taught. Brethren, act
upon it. If ever you are wrongfully taken to prison, go
unresistingly. If, afterward, they *■' send to let you go,"
bid them "come themselves and fetch vou out." If that
happen to you which did not happen to the Apostle, then
follow the general analogy of his conduct, or if there be
specific precepts elsewhere in Holy Scripture, follow tliem.
If a yoke is attempted to be put upon your neck, ''which
neither your fathers nor you were able to bear," (Acts xv.
10,) the yoke of silence where free speech, the manly utter-
ance of honest conviction, hath been heretofore accustomed,
shake it off; it is a duty you owe to posterity. If an oath
unknown to the Constitution is exacted of you, refuse to
take it ; it can serve only for a snare to your conscience.
Keep clear of that "vain and rash swearing," which the
Church says, in her Thirty-ninth Article, "is forbidden
Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his
Apostle." Extra-constitutional, like extra-judicial, oaths
are not merely outside the Constitution, they are against the
Law of God. In brief, if anything is required of you on
the ground that it is for a right end, see that it be itself
right. Give no countenance, by word or deed, to the doc-
trine, so popular of late, that the end justifies the means : it
is a " doctrine of devils." God preserve our land from the
blight it is bringing on it !
What I have said thus far, respects the individual in his
individual capacity. What I have now to say, respects him
in his capacity of constituent member of the state.
In a constitutional government — and nearly all civilized
governments are constitutional, whether the constitution be
a written instrument^ or a body of traditional customs which
the ruler violates at his peril — in a constitutional govern-
ment, the Constitution is the Supreme Power ; but then as
the Constitution cannot carry on and carry out itself, there
must be subordinate powers to carry it on and carry it out.
In a government like that we live under — for that is the
hind of constitutional government I am now speaking of,
and I wish it distinctly understood, that I am dealing with
'principles — in a government like that we live under, these
powers are parcelled out among three co-ordinate depart-
ments, the legislative^ the executive, and tlie judicial ;
theoretically co-ordinate, for practically one of them is
superordinate (if I may coin fhe word) and the other two are
subordinate. The superordinate department is not the legis-
lative, still less the executive ; it is the judicial. The execu-
tive officers of a constitutional government of the kind we
are considering, are virtually ministerial officers of the
Courts, for the Courts have power to pass upon their acts,
and even to compel them by mandamus, or restrain them by
injunction. Even the " Chief Executive " is in this respect,
in his relation to the people at large, no more than his sub-
ordinates, save in the possession of the pardoning power,
which is a power on the side of mercy, not of oppression.
Suppose now the Chief Executive of a constitutional govern-
ment, sustained, if you will, by a subservient majority in
the legislative department, which, be it observed, does not
necessarily sup|)ose a majority of the people, should under-
take to set aside the Constitution as expounded by the
Courts, and to govern "after the counsel of his own will," —
a prerogative of God only, — have the people, ever, in such a
case, or have they not, the right, not in their several indi-
vidual capacities, but in their capacity of constituent mem-
bers of the state, to restrain such exorbitancy, even to the
extent, if it cannot be done in any other way, of deposing
such Executive and putting another in his place? To say
that they have not, is to say that if he should take it into
his head to have a "grand custom," after the example of
the Chief Executive of Dahomey, there is no help for it but
in the Providence of God, or in the sin of man. I am aware
that the case is an extreme one, but an extreme case is the
proper test of a universal negative ; for if there is a single
exception, the whole ground is shifted, and the question be-
comes one, not of the right of revolution, but of how much
will justify a resort to it. It will not do to say that the
Word of God forbids revolution : that would be to ignore
the distinction between public and private acts, a distinction
clearly recognized in Holy Scripture. In the very verse but
one preceding my text, we read, "If thine enemy hunger,
feed him; if he thirst, give him drink." If on the strength
of this injunction you were to send a ship-load of provisions
to Charleston, I think you would hardly get clear of the
penalty even before a court of non-jurors. To deny entirely
the right of revolution, is to forget that the state, like the
sabbath, was made for man, not man for the state; it is to
sacrifice the many to the few, the people to the powers that
be, the end to the means, which is simply preposterous.
Of course, the right of revolution is an extreme right ;
the resort to it is a legitimate resort, only when it is a last
resort. Not only "prudence," but the law of God, "will
dictate that governments long established should not be
changed for light and transient causes;" and even when
that law will sanction the change, it will not sanction any
and every means of bringing it about, "Sedition, privy
conspiracy, and rebellion," we pray to be delivered from;
and that, not asexternal evils, like "lightning and tempest,"
"plague, pestilence, and famine," "battle and murder," and
" sudden death;" but as internal evils, ranging themselves
under the same category with "false doctrine, heresy, and
schism," with "hardness of heart, and contempt of God's
Word and Commandment ;" that is to say, as siiis. That
they are sins, and very aggravated ones, too, no Christian
can doubt. Sedition is expressly declared by St. Paul to be
one of the " works of the flesh," and it was because of the
seditious tendencies of the Cretians and especially those of
them who were Jews that he gave to Titus the injunction,
"Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers,
to obey magistrates." Privy conspiracy is not only a sin,
but a very cowardly one, ranking on a par with the assassi-
nation to which it tends and often leads. I cannot now re-
call a single instance in which, even though successful in its
immediate object, it has ever accomplished its ultimate end ;
so evidently does the Providence of God seem to have put
its special mark of reprobation upon it. Catilinarian conspi
racies, gunpowder treasons, rye-house plots, are crimes
against civil society, and, as such, have met, as they liave
' deserved to meet, the execration of all right-thinking
persons. The same has been the ftite of the conspiracy of
Brutus and Cassius ; even the acknowledged purity of
motive of the conspirators could not shield it. As for re-
bellion, the prophet has declared that it is "as the sin of
witchcraft," and that the law of God punished with death.
But revolution is not necessarily rebellion. The revolu-
tion of 1789, the revolution, I mean^ (for such it was, and
such it was declared to be by a distinguished orator in one
of our large cities last summer,) by which the Federal Con-
stitution was adopted with the consent of eleven States only,
though the then existing Constitution expressly required
the consent of the whole thirteen, was not a rebellion, and
nobody ever thought of calling it one. True it was a peace-
ful revolution, but it was not its peacefulness that kept it
from being a rebellion. Suppose the Constitution had been
adopted, as it might have been, by the nine smallest States
of the Confederacy^ and suppose the consequence had been
a bloody war between them and the other four, that would
not have made the act a rebellion : it would not have altered
its character in the slightest degree. The character of an
act already done cannot be affected by any supervening con-
But "rebellion" in the Litany, we are told, means revolu-
tion. I deny it. And, to sustain myself in the denial, I
will not even ask that the language be "allowed," to use
the words of the Church of England, as quoted in the
preface to our own Prayer Book, "such just and favorable
construction as in common equity ought to be allowed to all
human writings." I will simply make the action, the
deliberate action, of the Church of England herself a com-
mentary on her words: it is tlie very best kind of com-
In the very same suffrage of the Litany in which we pray
to be delivered "from all sedition, privy conspiracy, and
rebellion," we pray also to be delivered "from all false
doctrine, heresy, and schism." Now what rebellion is, in
the State^ that, schism is, in the Church. If, then, shaking
off usurped authority in the State is, of itself, rebellion_, sliak-
ing off usurped authority in the Church is schism, and the
Chiircli of England, in sliaking off the usurped authority of
the Pope, and retaining in her Litany tlie petition to be
delivered from schism, has stultified herself. It matters
not to the argument, that the authority of the Pope over
the Church of England, was wholly usurped, and that of
the king of Great Britain, for instance, over the Colonies,
only in part; for if the usurped authority could not he
thrown off without throwing off the legitimate with it, then
the legitimate was fairly forfeited, and so ceased to he
From what has heen said, it follows clearly that a revolu-
tion can he rightfully brought about in but one or other of
two ways, either by organized communities acting in their
organic capacity, openly and above-board, for the security
of their Constitutional rights, as was the case with our
fathers a hundred years ago, or, by the spontaneous upris-
ing of a whole people to shake off intolerable oppression.
I have thus endeavored to ascertain the meaning of the
text — what it does teach, what it does not. How far I have
succeeded, is known only to Him who has "caused all holy
Scriptures to be written for our learning." We are fallible:
He only is infallible.
After all^ the important thing is, the practical lesson as
respects our duty in the circumstances in w^hich we are
placed. Plainly it is that of the Apostle under the Pioman
government eighteen hundred years ago: passive obedience
to ''the powers that be," in all things; active obedience,
only so far as is consistent with our duty to a Higher Power.
''We ought to obev Grod rather than man."
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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